As a piece of drama, Mary’s story stands comparison with many major historical events. Mary was arguably unsuited to be a monarch; she was gregarious and found it difficult to keep her emotions in check. While this made her popular (then and now) it was not calculated to help her cause. The other major ingredients in her story include: Scotland’s auld alliance with France which was a perennial problem for England, but more particularly during Queen Elizabeth I’s reign when England was continually under threat from the Catholic powers of Europe; the fact that she was a young woman and unlike Elizabeth lacked the steady and continuing support of a strong privy council; a more difficult, scheming, untrustworthy set of noblemen it would be difficult to find anywhere; and the problems caused by her Catholic religion at the time of the Reformation, in particular the open criticism of her by John Knox.
All this resulted in a series of events that would be criticised as implausible if it had been written as a work of fiction. Mary has been a focus of attention ever since her execution in 1587: from an early biography in 1624; to Schiller’s play Maria Stuart (excellent versions of which I have seen at the Donmar Warehouse in London in 2005 with Janet McTeer as Mary and Harriet Walter as Elizabeth, and in 2017 at the Almeida where Juliet Stevenson and Lia Williams spun a coin at the beginning to decide who would play which part); to the steady stream of biographies in modern times, and on to the various films and TV dramas which mainly appear intent on showing that her story is not implausible enough for some people in the media.
Mary’s troubles began early in her life when her father, James V, died 6 days after her birth in 1542 and she was crowned Queen of Scots in the following year. Over the next four years “The Rough Wooings” took place – various attempts made by English and Scottish factions to marry Mary or her mother, Mary of Guise. Mary of Guise skilfully kept all the suitors at bay and eventually managed to get her daughter to France in 1548 where the Guise family was close to the wheels of power. Ten years later she was betrothed to the Dauphin who became Francis II of France in 1559, and she became Queen of France.
This success was short-lived. 1560 was a bad year for Mary: her mother died in June, followed by her husband Francis II in December. Catherine de Medici, Francis’s mother, took control and ensured that Charles IX, her 10 year old son, was proclaimed as king. Mary was not in Catherine’s plans at all, nor was the Guise family. In 1561 as the Guise clan started to withdraw from the French court, Mary decided to return to Scotland. Lord James, her illegitimate half-brother, and soon to become the Earl of Moray, came over to France to discuss her position and he eventually gained her trust. Lord James was in alliance with: James, the Earl of Morton who vacillated in his support during Mary of Guise’s struggles with the nobles until he was confident that he knew which way the wind was blowing; and William Maitland, Secretary of State to the council of nobles, the cleverest of the three who was a committed Protestant and a friend of William Cecil, Queen Elizabeth’s chief advisor. This trio dominated policy-making initially.
Mary, Queen of Scots
Mary’s first problem on her arrival back in Scotland in August 1561 was the threat from Calvinism, in the form of the Town Council and John Knox. Mary’s approach, although she was a staunch Catholic, was to retain the status quo, i.e. both religions should peacefully co-exist, as indeed was largely the case across the country. Knox, not a PC sort of chap, had previously written The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women (1558), a diatribe against female rulers, and he had subsequently argued that Mary of Guise and Mary Queen of Scots could lawfully be deposed by the nobles.
The other threat to Mary was England, and in particular the Treaty of Edinburgh (1560) which had been signed without Mary’s or Francis’s agreement. The parties to the treaty were the Scottish nobles, the Guise family and England. It called for the French to get out of Scotland; for France to recognise Elizabeth as the rightful Queen of England with Francis and Mary dropping their claims; plus it contained a surveillance clause allowing England to intervene in Scotland if it was thought necessary to uphold the Protestant religion and expunge Catholic and French influences. This treaty was forever to be a problem to Mary, not least because she was pushing to be named as Elizabeth’s successor in the event that Elizabeth had no issue.
The next problem was marriage. Mary’s preferred choice of husband was Don Carlos, the son of Philip II of Spain. Knox, for one, was strongly against this idea. Other possible candidates that were thought to be in the running were Charles IX, the king of France (over Catherine De Medici’s dead body!), and the Archduke Charles of Austria who was favoured by the Guises. Elizabeth wanted to have the final say whoever was proposed. Lots of wild rumours circulated, e.g. that England would be given to Philip of Spain as a dowry if she married Don Carlos. Elizabeth proposed Robert Dudley, her favourite, but then prevaricated.
Meanwhile, Mary secretly had her eye on Lord Darnley. Being the son of the Earl of Lennox (Scottish) and Margaret, a niece of Henry VIII, he had a claim on the English throne, just below Mary in the overall pecking order – she was a great granddaughter of Henry VII. Lennox and Darnley were unwittingly allowed by Elizabeth to return to Scotland, and she was extremely unhappy when she eventually heard of Mary’s plans, ordering them to return to England while Mary insisted that they stay in Scotland. Moray, who was against the marriage, and refused to sign a document pledging his support, was dismissed from court and outlawed along with various other nobles. For a week or two Mary thought that she was actually in love with the young nineteen year old Darnley, but she quickly realised that it was simply a marriage of convenience when his true behaviour began to shine through. He was generally arrogant, wilful and a schemer. However, he was knighted, made a baron and the Earl of Ross all in a single afternoon and, after the marriage took place on July 29th 1565, subsequently given the title of King of Scotland.
Darnley immediately started to act as if he was the ruler and his wife subservient to him. He communicated with European powers, having decided that Catholicism should be restored, his motive being political rather than religious. Mary put him in his place and, not surprisingly, the marriage began to go downhill rapidly.
He started plotting against Mary, his father having a secret rendezvous with the Earl of Argyll, the most powerful noble, at which an offer was made to Moray and other exiled lords in England that, in return for their support in granting Darnley “crown matrimonial”, Darnley would switch sides, pardon them and forbid the confiscation of their estates. He would also re-establish the religious status quo. In essence, everybody would benefit except Mary. Maitland who was out of favour at the time was also on their side along with Morton. The plot needed a scapegoat and Rizzio, Mary’s private secretary, was chosen. Maitland fanned the flames by telling Darnley that Rizzio and Mary were rumoured to be having an affair. Rizzio was Italian, and thought to be a papal spy. He was somebody that everybody could hate.
Darnley signed the bond for the plot, even stating how and where it might be done. On March 9th, 1566 at 8pm in the evening Darnley led Lord Ruthven and an accomplice up the secret stairs that came out in the Queen’s bedchamber. Mary, Rizzio and others were in a small room off the bedchamber having supper. Darnley went into the room to talk to Mary while Ruthven and his accomplice opened the main door to the bedchamber where Morton and the other conspirators, 80 in all, were waiting. They burst into the room, dragged Rizzio to the outer chamber and killed him. Darnley did not join in but somebody used his dagger and left it in the body to signify his involvement. With Rizzio dead, the conspirators fled and Morton sealed the gates and doors of the palace. The earls of Bothwell and Huntly, who were loyal to Mary, heard the commotion and assuming that something was going on, also fled Holyrood.
Darnley’s tasks were now to get Mary to pardon the conspirators and to prevent the land forfeitures. Mary, who was by now pregnant, played for time by pretending to miscarry. She used the time to persuade Darnley that the lords were not to be trusted. Why should they do anything to help him once they had their pardons and their estates? Darnley was persuaded and the two fled to Dunbar, 25 miles away, from where Mary eventually returned with an army that had been assembled by Bothwell and Huntly. She offered pardons to the rebel lords who had been against the marriage, along with the return of their estates if they withdrew temporarily to their own houses and made no attempt to intercede for Darnley’s co-conspirators in the Rizzio plot. Argyll and Moray agreed and were restored to the Privy Council although Maitland was excluded. Branded as rebels with their lands forfeited, Morton, Ruthven and others fled to England. Darnley publicly denied involvement but Mary was shown the bond that he had signed by Moray. Meanwhile, Mary rewarded Bothwell with the captaincy of Dunbar, granting him the castle and surrounding estates.
After Mary gave birth to James (who eventually became VI of Scotland and I of England), Darnley took up plotting once more, seeing her attempts to restore order among the various lords as moves to marginalise him. Amid all this turmoil Mary and Elizabeth seemed to be coming close to an agreement. This had started with Mary asking Elizabeth to be her son’s protector. This proposed agreement would confirm the substance of the Treaty of Edinburgh but without a lot of the detail. However, just as they were nearing a consensus Darnley was murdered.
Maitland had raised the idea of a plan to get rid of Darnley by a divorce. Argyll was in favour, as subsequently were Huntly and Bothwell, but Moray was not convinced. While Mary considered that divorce was satisfactory in theory, she was worried about where it might lead and therefore preferred the status quo. Over Christmas 1566 and New Year at Stirling Mary was persuaded to pardon the majority of the Rizzio plotters. Morton immediately arranged a meeting with Maitland and Bothwell on his return to plot against the “treacherous” Darnley.
Mary was concerned that Darnley planned to kidnap her son James and rule as regent and she wanted to keep an eye on him. She persuaded him to return to Edinburgh from Glasgow, the Lennox stronghold where he was currently sulking, on the pretext that she could nurse him (he was suffering from syphilis), promising that sexual relations would be resumed once he was cured. Darnley relented and moved into the old Provost’s lodging at Kirk o’ Field. This was his idea, as his vanity did not allow him to be seen at court, pustules and all, until he had recovered. The house adjoined the Flodden Wall, the back gate coming out on Thieves Row (now Drummond Street).
Mary visited him several times, including the evening of Sunday 9th February, 1567 when she returned to Holyrood at 11pm. At around 2am there was a large explosion and the Kirk o’ Field building was destroyed. Darnley’s body was found over the other side of Thieves Row with no sign that he had been burnt or blown there. He had in fact been strangled. It is assumed that he heard noises prior to the explosion, and presuming that something was up, he got out through a window that led down to Thieves Row via a rope and chair where he was seized by the conspirators.
Over the centuries there has been much speculation about who was involved in the plot and its execution. Local gossip put Bothwell in the frame, while Mary was put in the court of public opinion by leaders and others, indicating that either she was involved or at the very least she “looked through her fingers”. Morton was almost certainly involved along with Bothwell; Argyll and Huntly were in full support; and Moray was aware of what was going on, but he simply watched while events unfolded.
Mary was now alone and exposed, and she needed somebody to rely on. That person was Bothwell. Lennox accused Bothwell of his son’s murder, but he did not dare to attend the subsequent trial in Edinburgh as the court and surrounding area were full of Bothwell’s men. Unsurprisingly, Bothwell was found not guilty and Lennox fled the country. Moray also went into exile, though voluntarily.
In a similar manner to Darnley, Bothwell quickly became arrogant and assumed more power. He tried to get the Lords to sign a bond stating that he was innocent of Darnley’s murder, and that they would support him in any wooing of Mary. Some Lords signed but others did not, particularly Morton and Maitland. Matters deteriorated further when Bothwell abducted Mary at Almond Bridge and took her to Dunbar where she stayed for 12 days. It is claimed by some that he raped her there but this is speculative.
The rapid increase in Bothwell’s power caused the conspirators to fall out and the Lords now got together to plot against him; Morton, Argyll, Atholl, and Mar were the main instigators. Meanwhile, Bothwell had arranged a quickie divorce from his wife, and he married Mary on the 15th May, a mere 3 months and 5 days after Darnley’s murder. One month later, the Scottish lords confronted Mary and Bothwell at Carberry Hill, just east of Edinburgh. Mary eventually surrendered on condition that Bothwell was allowed to leave. He fled to Scandinavia via the Orkneys and Shetland. Mary was imprisoned at Lochleven castle where she was forced to abdicate, and on 29th July 1567 the one year old James VI was crowned with Moray appointed as regent.
Mary managed to escape from Lochleven in May of the following year but she was defeated at Langside 11 days later. Fleeing across the border to England, expecting help which was not forthcoming, she was detained, effectively under house arrest, until her eventual death twenty years later in 1587.
William Cecil had always wanted to get rid of her, but Elizabeth, while acknowledging that she was a problem, recognised her as a queen – and all that went with that – and hence she prevaricated. However, Mary inevitably became a focus for Catholic plots, as Cecil had feared, and the Babington plot eventually led to her downfall. The idea of De Mendoza, the expelled Spanish ambassador in London, was a coup d’etat which would include a Catholic uprising, a Spanish invasion, the seizing of Elizabeth, and Mary’s triumph. The plotters contacted Mary via Anthony Babington, a rich young Catholic gentleman, to ask if she would support them. Unfortunately, the letter was intercepted and Walsingham, Elizabeth’s spymaster, allowed the game to continue in an attempt to trap Mary. She dutifully obliged by giving the conspirators the go ahead, thus signing her own death warrant. She was eventually beheaded at Fotheringay in 1587.
Although Mary was not ruler material she has generated a great deal of sympathy, mainly because she was blown about by stronger forces, by events that seemed to be outside her control, by her relative youth (she was still only 24 in the climactic year of 1567), and crucially by the lack of any strong and loyal advisers. However, despite her trials and tribulations it was Mary’s son, James VI, who succeeded to the English throne when Elizabeth died in 1603.
The content of this article can also be found in my “Potted history of Edinburgh”.
Guy, J., ‘My Heart is My Own’ The Life of Mary Queen of Scots, Harper Perennial, London, 2004